It was in my best interests to scoff at ray tracing when it first started appearing. "Some shiny surfaces don't justify the huge performance costs," I'd say, when what I really meant was "I don't have an RTX card and can't afford one thanks to crypto miners." Then I started playing Cyberpunk 2077 on GeForce Now, with a host machine that did have one of these mythical cards. When I looked into the puddles of Night City, I saw the future reflected back at me.
The moment the 3080 Ti hit a price that didn't make me vomit, I snatched one up and woke up in a new age. Like Jordan Peele's continental-breakfast-loving hotel guest, I sampled delight after delight with giddy enthusiasm, basking in the divine light my new card was capable of producing.
Games like Cyberpunk, Control and Dying Light 2 let me enjoy the eye-watering sights with only a small performance cost, alleviated greatly by the magic of DLSS. I was a convert, and then an evangelist, constantly annoying people who didn't have an RTX card. When games didn't have ray tracing, my heart sank a little, even if they actually looked amazing. I'd spent 100 hours being stunned by Assassin's Creed Valhalla's vistas, but the moment I got my new card I started thinking "It could look better".
I became a deeply annoying man (more than usual, anyway), but now the honeymoon is over and I really mean it: Some shiny surfaces don't justify the huge performance costs.
When it's implemented well, I still love it. It was added to Forza Horizon 5 retroactively and I don't even need to turn on DLSS to take advantage of it. That kind of thing makes me very, very happy. But increasingly this feels like the exception to the rule, and I find myself spending hour after hour tinkering away with in-game settings to try and get a few more frames—not the experience I expected when I shelled out a stupid amount of money for my fancy card.
Lately, it's become intolerable. Gotham Knights, for instance, somehow looks uglier than 2015's Arkham Knight, but still manages to make my rig chug in the open world, even with DLSS's more extreme performance settings. Darktide, meanwhile, looks incredible, but not so incredible that I'm willing to put up with a frame rate that lurches between 40-80 even on the lowest ray tracing setting. Even my beloved Midnight Suns made me grind my teeth when I tried to play with all the bells and whistles turned on, and it is far from the flashiest of games.
More and more I'm turning ray tracing off, which makes me wonder what the point of having an RTX card even is. I've basically paid for the experience of wasting my time in graphics menus, which would give anyone buyer's remorse.
The nature of PC gaming means that you might be one of the lucky ones. Maybe, somehow, you can play Darktide with a smooth fps even with ray tracing turned on. But judging by the complaints on the forums, and the frequency of advice like "Have you turned off ray tracing?" I suspect there are a lot of people in the same boat as me.
I still think ray tracing makes for wonderful eye candy, but as big budget games become increasingly difficult to make, and teams find themselves working until the last second to ensure a smooth launch—often failing—ray tracing starts to look like an unnecessary hurdle. And while it makes sense for a moody, atmospheric game like Darktide to take advantage of this technology, what the heck is Midnight Suns, which mostly sees you brawling in empty construction sites and desert arenas, doing with it?
Back in 2020, Nvidia said it wouldn't push its proprietary ray tracing features in any games, meaning that it isn't forcing developers to use ray tracing features that are exclusive to Nvidia cards. It's still very much using ray tracing to showcase its cards' capabilities, however, just as AMD is, and partnering with developers like Fatshark to make sure ray tracing options are present.
It was clear in the betas that Darktide had broad optimisation issues, which have yet to be fully fixed even now that the game is out in the wild and has received performance patches. Even without ray tracing, there are other problems, but I've got to imagine they would be easier to solve if Fatshark wasn't also trying to figure out why players with some of the best GPUs around aren't able to use the features those GPUs are touting.
But there is one bright spot: DLSS. While DLSS aims to reduce the fps cost of things like ray tracing by reducing the resolution and then upscaling it, I've started using it all the time, even when I'm not using ray tracing. As the tech has developed, it's reached the point where the higher quality presets have such a minimal image quality cost that the only thing you gain by not using it is a shittier frame rate.
There are other options, like game-specific upscaling options, or AMD's FidelityFX alternative, but they typically come with a more substantial visual downgrade. Hopefully they'll catch up to DLSS eventually.
Using DLSS has made me realise that what I really want isn't more eye candy—I just want a smooth experience. All the realistic lighting in the world is worthless if the performance graph looks spikier than Pinhead. And my frustrations speak to a broader dissatisfaction with the state of PC graphics options. I used to love tinkering with games, but now I'm just too busy to waste my time fiddling and benchmarking. I hate to admit it, but playing on my PS5 is liberating now. There are usually only two or three graphics options, and it's immediately apparent which one is suitable for me—usually the performance mode, because ray tracing is even more of a hog on consoles than it is on PC.
So my days of evangelising ray tracing are well and truly behind me, but I know I won't be able to help myself. When the next game with ray tracing graces my PC, I will turn it on, and then I will definitely spend at least an hour troubleshooting if the frame rate dips below 60. But I will moan and swear the whole time.